False friends

This week, Anthony and I have been discussing translation, specifically the question of whether translations from Romance languages tend to favor Latinate cognates over more common terms. The primary motivation to do this is laziness: I see a word that looks like “operate,” for instance, and so I type “operate” into my translation and move on. Although the meaning will probably be conveyed adequately, it might be better to just go with the more common word “work,” because here’s the thing: Romance languages don’t have the weird two-tier system that English and German (and presumably other Germanic languages) have where there are two parallel sets of synonyms that are either “common” or “Latinate.” This two-tiered system has its uses — for instance, it provided Heidegger with a simple way of designating the “originary” and “artificially philosophical” versions of concepts (Dasein vs. Existenz, for instance), and in English it’s more common to use the Latinate forms to “elevate” the discourse. But in Romance languages, the Latinate terms just are the common terms; the problem of how to deploy either set simply doesn’t come up.

Now it’s possible that I should translate Agamben with a bias toward the Latinate terms because it’s a scholarly work and the Latinate vocabulary would reflect its more “elevated” status — but I could just as easily decide that it’s stupid that scholarly work should use artificially “elevated” language that conveys no additional information and go with common terms. Perhaps Agamben himself has preferences in this regard (I’ve been told he’ll be going over the translation), but his text can’t force the decision. Whether I decide which way to go in the translation or Agamben does, one of us will be implicitly casting a vote in favor of a particular style of English scholarly writing.

2 thoughts on “False friends

  1. Hmm, I am waffling on this a bit. Partly I wish I could “commonize” Laruelle, but as he is often pulling terms from, well, everyone (Derrida, Levinas, Heidegger, Deleuze, just to name the big ones) I feel like I should reference how those words function in English. So, one that I had to deal with today was whether to use “foreclosed” or “barred” for “forclos”. I went with “foreclosed” even though it adds to the clunkiness of the writing, but because it references what I know exists in Derrida translations. One of my friends looking over the translation is a bit better at rendering things idiomatically (having actually been trained to translate non-academic writing), so it should be interesting to see what her suggestions are.

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